by M. A. Sumanthiran.
The issue of poaching by Indian trawlers in Sri Lankan waters has over the years become an increasingly contentious one, seriously threatening the livelihood of Sri Lanka’s fishing community. Fishers being among the poorest communities in both Sri Lanka and India, it is an issue of national concern to both countries.
Indian fishermen practise bottom trawling, which entails scraping the seabed. This not only adversely impacts our marine ecosystem but also has a direct implication for the lives of fisherfolk in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. Sri Lankan fishermen are often forced to stay ashore for fear that these trawlers will damage their nets, their primary asset for livelihood. There have even been incidents of fishermen suffering physical injuries while attempting to save their nets from being damaged by Indian trawlers.
At least 200,000 people in the Northern Province are dependent on the fisheries sector. Most of them are still struggling to rebuild their lives after a brutal civil war. Many of them were displaced, lost members of their family, and lost their homes during the bitter conflict. It is only now that they have a chance to get back to the sea. But their small boats cannot take on the massive, mechanised Indian trawlers.
The politics of poaching
Both Sri Lanka and India have for the past few years attempted to address the issue of poaching. To date however, there has been very little progress on this. The primary reason is politics. When Indian fishermen trespass into Sri Lankan waters, there is serious concern about the significant impact this has on the livelihood of an already struggling community. On the other hand, when trespassing Tamil Nadu fishermen are arrested, there is outcry in India.
While we appreciate the concerns of several thousand fishermen in India struggling to make ends meet, Sri Lanka has the sovereign right to take action against any act of trespass into territory that comes under its jurisdiction. The problem with this approach, however, is that it is at best a short-term one. The vessels are only detained temporarily. And despite the risk of arrest, fishermen are willing to take the risk of returning in these vessels, particularly because they are desperate for a reasonable catch which they do not find in Indian waters anymore consequent to relentless bottom trawling. Also, fishermen who are apprehended are in several cases released following political negotiations.
A more effective step would be to confiscate the vessels in which fishermen trespass into Sri Lankan waters. Authorities are in fact empowered to do so, and lately they have resorted to this action. This provision must be regularly enforced.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has been repeatedly requested to take up the issue of the fishing conflict by fishing societies in the North. Opposition leader and TNA head R. Sampanthan raised the issue during an adjournment debate recently proposed by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) parliamentarian Vijitha Herath. He suggested that the Indian Navy or Coast Guard join the Sri Lankan Navy in jointly patrolling the international boundary to prevent trespassing.
I myself have submitted a Private Member’s Bill to make bottom trawling an offence in law rather than by mere regulation (as is the case now). According to the current law in terms of the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act 2 of 1996, bottom trawling can be carried out by both Sri Lankan nationals as well as non-nationals who obtain a licence from the Department of Fisheries.
The way forward
I am now presenting this Bill for the second time, as Parliament was dissolved after I first presented it on April 21, 2015. Both India and Sri Lanka should fully support this Bill in light of the serious environmental damage caused by bottom trawling. As far as poaching is concerned, banning the practice of bottom trawling will greatly reduce the incentive to trespass into Sri Lankan waters.
Both Sri Lanka and India must also take effective steps for the conversion of fishing with trawlers to deep sea fishing. In order for a ban on bottom trawling to succeed, alternatives must be available to protect the livelihoods of fishermen presently engaged in bottom trawling. Additionally, interim steps must also be taken to minimise the serious damage being caused by trawling.
The 45-day annual ban on trawling observed in Tamil Nadu to replenish fish stock came to an end recently, and Indian fishermen are again being arrested on charges of poaching and engaging in illegal fishing activity. The Indian government and Tamil Nadu must consider a ban period while we attempt to resolve this issue. We cannot hope to have a meaningful dialogue or to resolve the issue while Indian fishermen continue relentlessly trawling in Sri Lankan waters. Such a ban will act as a confidence building measure and will encourage speedy resolution of this issue.
It is time the governments of both India and Sri Lanka moved beyond political rhetoric and tough talk and took effective and sustainable steps to resolve this issue.